Van Poppel's Comeback
Finding Relief in The Bullpen
When Todd Van Poppel made his major league debut at age 19 in 1991, he was sporting a $1.2 million contract, which had been a record for a draft choice the year before, and had the weight of unrealistic expectations on his shoulders. Observers felt that the 6'5", 205-pound righthander would dominate games by throwing mid-90s heat and striking out roughly one hitter per inning. It turns out they were right, only it has taken him nine years to develop into that overpowering pitcher, and he's doing it as a setup man, not as a starter. "If I don't go back to starting, that's fine with me," says Van Poppel, who is working out of the Cubs' bullpen these days. "Honestly, I'm probably better as a reliever. Knowing I have a chance to pitch every day is good for me. I overthink, and as a starter I had too much time to sit around and analyze."
After struggling through the 1990s as the poster boy for expensive draft-day blunders, Van Poppel has resurrected his career. Through Sunday he was 2-3 with two saves and a 2.36 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 42 innings. He had been scored upon in only eight of his 30 appearances and had allowed just two of eight inherited runners to score. "I don't think anybody expected him to do the job he's doing," says Chicago closer Rick Aguilera. "He's helped solidify our bullpen."
Before Van Poppel was summoned from Triple A Iowa on May 11, he had last pitched in the big leagues in 1998, when he went 2-4 with a 6.38 ERA in 22 games for the Rangers and the Pirates. The Cubs are the sixth organization he's played for in five years, an odyssey that began when Oakland, frustrated by his inability to develop another quality pitch to go with his fastball, gave up on him in '96, when his career record was 18-29. "My velocity is pretty much the same as it's always been," says Van Poppel, who has come up with an overhand curve and a slider to complement a fastball that still reaches 95 mph. "But now I feel I can get people out on any given day. In the past I felt I had to have my real good stuff."
His confidence was restored last season with the Pirates' Triple A affiliate in Nashville, the first time since 1995 that he spent an entire season with one team at one level. He went 10-6 with a 4.95 ERA in 27 starts—the only time in his pro career that he finished a full season with a winning record—and led the Pacific Coast League with 157 strikeouts.
Chicago signed him to a minor league deal last November with the understanding that he would shift to the bullpen; Van Poppel says he had more lucrative offers but chose the Cubs because he thought they would give him the best chance of returning to the majors. His hunch proved right and after his May call-up he pitched 15 scoreless innings over his first 11 outings.
"Todd's aggressive, and he throws strikes, which is what he has to do in his role," says pitching coach Oscar Acosta. "He's finally found his niche here."
July 27-30: Red Sox at A's
Even without postseason implications—Oakland led Boston by a game in the American League wild-card race at week's end—there's enough bad blood between these teams to keep things interesting. During their four-game series in April, A's hitters complained that Pedro and Ramon Martinez were throwing at them. Oakland first baseman Olmedo Saenz was plunked by Ramon a day after he homered off Pedro, and Pedro nailed shortstop Miguel Tejada an inning after Saenz took him deep. "They're good, but I don't know who they think they are," said Saenz after the third game of that series. The A's will have their chances at revenge: Both Pedro and Ramon are scheduled to pitch in the series.
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